Social dilemmas

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Because of COVID-19, we are supposed to…

  • Avoid gathering in crowds in indoor spaces.
  • Avoid isolation because of the negative impact on our mental health.
  • Wear a mask to protect others from the droplets in our breath that might spread the coronavirus to others.
  • Wear a smile to help lift the spirits of those you come into contact with during these dispiriting times.
  • Stay at least six feet apart from everyone, maintaining “social distance.”
  • Stay socially connected with friends and family, checking in with them through phone calls, texts and social media.
  • Stay off social media to prevent fear of missing out (FOMO), negative comparison and envy, manipulation by fake news, failing to have real experiences, and anxiety caused by the cacophony of negativity and general nastiness spread on various social media platforms.

Everywhere I turn these days there is contradiction, and it only adds to the mounting frustration I feel as I attempt to cope with a world I don’t recognize anymore. I am, frankly, out of easy answers, exhausting those within the first few weeks of stay-at-home protocols and isolation when I could not imagine we would still be dealing with this when the scent of pumpkin spice returned to our lives.

It feels like a bit of a trap, these cascading sets of contradictory instructions. At the heart of it, is our need for socialization. I struggle with making sense of the greater priority sometimes. Should I be more concerned about the spread of COVID-19 or the impact of isolation on my mental health?

Even our decisions about our children’s education is rife with difficult choices. We sent our oldest off to college where he has one of four classes in a hybrid format, meaning it meets twice a week but he only goes once a week. The other three classes are online. He goes to marching band practice twice a week, but the band will not perform this fall because the football season was postponed until spring.

Was this a worthy risk? We moved him into his apartment almost two months ago, and so far he’s doing fine. The possible negative consequences assault my mind every time I sit still long enough to have a thought.

Our high schooler and middle schooler are doing digital learning from home. That has its own challenges, but so far we’re managing. What seems incongruent is keeping them home from school but taking one to marching band practice twice a week and the other to drama multiple days a week for rehearsals. We tell ourselves they need an outlet, and the program leaders in both band and drama are following all the experts’ recommendations and guidelines. There are still risks, any of which lie in wait in my thoughts ready to derail my concentration and stop my productivity.

Every decision feels freighted with life or death consequences.

image of cracked cell phone screen with ad for social dilemma documentary

Adding to our consternation was our recent viewing of the new Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” As if we didn’t feel bad enough about the amount of screen time we were permitting our children during quarantine, we watched 94 minutes of tech gurus explaining how social media companies serve up their customers to be marketed to and manipulated all in the name of user growth and engagement.

I felt like just as much of a parental failure as if I had sent my child mask-less to a super-spreader birthday party. The movie tugged at all the underlying suspicions and overt fears I’ve had of technology since I created my Facebook account in 2008.

What’s the solution?

Before I completely give in to despair, I have to recognize the false dichotomy inherent in the “social distance” guidance. It’s not either you and your family plunge into a coronavirus-riddled crowd singing and shouting mask-less with hugs and handshakes aplenty OR spend hours alone on Instagram looking at ways to improve your wardrobe, home décor or vacation plans.

There has to be a third way.

I’m thinking we need to revert to analog activities. Go outside. Walk, hike, bike, run. Play games. Talk to people. If those people are in your household, you can talk to them up close. If you need to maintain six feet of separation, you can both wear masks, stay outside, make good eye contact and really listen.

I have to remind myself most of us are doing the best we can, balancing our physical and mental health, our needs with the needs of the medically fragile, and our digital platforms with human interaction. I have to resist the oppression of second guessing and hand wringing over all the social dilemmas this pandemic has introduced into my life.

When this is all over, I hope the legacy of COVID-19 for me is a rediscovery of meaningful, interpersonal connections in real life and a rejection of the artificial, moderated interactions in the virtual world.

Maybe we will all have a better grip on what’s real and what’s a distraction.

So what’s your secret for coping with your desire for socialization during the pandemic? What are your thoughts on the saturation of screen time? Have you been tempted to pull the plug on your social media accounts? Add your ideas and make this a more meaningful experience for all of us.

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